4 Ways to Talk about Complicated Emotions with Teens


4 Ways to Talk about Complicated Emotions with Teens

Guest Blog by Laura Niebam, MA, MS, LMFT

Finding ways to authentically relate with teens can sometimes feel like nailing jelly to a wall. We do our best by asking, “How was your day?” only to receive a one-word answer, “Good.” We try again: “How are things going with your friends?” Again, we hear, “Good.” One last attempt: “How was church?” “good.” One-word answers galore!

Why aren’t our heartfelt attempts working? How do we truly connect with our teens and the complex emotions they face during this time in their lives?

The following are four ways to talk (actually, listen) with teens about their complicated emotions:


1.    Listen and empathize first.


As we tend to get one-word answers, sometimes it’s best to wait until teens speak up, and then listen with empathy. This will encourage more frequent and authentic connection.

For example, your son walks in from school, throws his bag down in obvious anger and storms to his room. As a parent, what’s your next move? You know he’s feeling angry and his action toward his room communicates he needs some space. So, give him some time, let him cool down. Then give a small knock on his door and simply say, “Do you want to talk?” Respect his answer. If he says no, simply remind him that you here if he ever wants to talk. If and when he starts to share about his anger, listen first. Listen for as long as he’ll talk and ALWAYS respond with non-judgmental empathy first. “I can see why you would feel that way…” is a good place to start. Try and match whatever emotions your teen is expressing.



2.    Normalize their experience.


You may tell a short story related to when you were around their age and could relate to what he or she is feeling in the moment. But, be careful not to take the attention away from them as they share. “I remember when I was your age and my friend lied to me…” is an example of this skill.


3.    Validate their feelings.


Even if it seems irrational to you, do not try to talk a teen out of how they are feeling in the moment. Every person, including teenagers, needs to feel seen and heard. Do your best to acknowledge the pain and sadness and take it seriously. 



4.    Collaborate/pray.


After you empathize, normalize and validate a teenager’s emotions, there is absolutely a place for problem-solving. Human instinct sometimes causes us to jump to this place first. But, problem solving before empathy can feel dismissive of a teenager’s emotional experience. Resist this tendency as best as you can until the end of a conversation. A good place to start problem-solving is by asking, “Is there anything would you like to do from here?” Make sure you collaborate for solutions with a teenager or leave it out altogether if you can! Sometimes a simple prayer is enough and more effective than trying to solve the problem.


Just remember, the time you invest in a teenager’s life may not pay off in the moment. Be encouraged that continuing to be supportive and trying to connect will tell your teenager that you are here when they need you. Yes, one day they will admit they need you.



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Laura Niebaum, MA, MS, LMFT

714-558-9266 x266